REVIEW: Ten Unknowns (Will Act for Food)

No great truths revealed

 

10-unknowns

 
Will Act for Food presents
 
Ten Unknowns
 
By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by
Scott Pasko, assisted by Sally LaRowe
Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 1, 2936 N. Southport Ave. (map)
Through May 29  |  Tickets: $20; $15 with food donation  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Jon Robin Baitz’s Ten Unknowns, now in Chicago premiere from Will Act for Food, debuted in 2001, and it’s set in 1992, but it feels even older, dated, like something out of the 1970s. I thought we’d got beyond gratuitous nude scenes and endless yelling about exploitation and the debasement of culture.

Its Lincoln Center premiere received handsome reviews, so possibly this complex drama fit better into 2001 than it does into 2010, or perhaps that production simply overcame the script’s flaws. Scott Pasko’s interpretation seems fine, though, and the cast does well, so I think the play has just not aged well.

The nature of art, the relationship of art and commerce, the roles of assistants vs. collaborators, the personal weaknesses of artists, generation gaps, homosexuality, ecology, the 10-unknowns-croppedugliness of American culture … Baitz packs all this and more, in rising volume, into his very talky story about a drunken old failure of a painter and three young people who come into his life without any understanding of where he’s come from.

Malcolm Raphelson, hailed as a promising figurative artist when his work featured as part of the 1949 exhibition "Ten Unknowns," soon vanished into obscurity with the rise of abstract impressionism. In 1963, he exiled himself to rural Mexico, mescal and a mean existence. Dennis Newport‘s gravel-voiced portrayal dances from grim bemusement to naughty charm to raw power, although he often seems too vigorous for a 75-year-old man who’s been living in a bottle most of three decades.

When some of Raphelson’s work surfaces to acclaim, New York art dealer Trevor Fabricant believes time is ripe for a retrospective and a lucrative comeback. He sends his own young assistant and sometime lover Judd Sturgess down to work with Raphelson and help him create some new work. When the dealer comes down to view the results and arrange the showing, however, the painter resists.

The polished but uptight Fabricant, for unaccountable reasons, is from South Africa (Baitz’s boyhood home). That’s distracting — not only because Ben Veatch, otherwise nicely smarmy, mangles the accent — and detracts from the Ugly American theme the rest of the play projects.

Judd, talented and anxious to learn from the older artist, is a junkie. Neil Huff, brimming with attitude, does his best to create a character but the script gives him little to build on. His rants and revelations seem to come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, Raphelson picks up an unlikely fourth for this quartet, Julia Bryant, a Berkeley biology student researching nearly extinct frogs. Rachel Neuman‘s pretty, perky, wholesome Julia contrasts beautifully with the tormented and arty bunch — at least until the unraveling second act, when Judd loses it, Raphelson gives in, and Julia reveals her dark past and the rest of herself, too.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

Review: Right Brain Project’s “The Modern Prometheus”

More Entertainment Than Intellectual Challenge

 

The Right Brain Project presents:

The Modern Prometheus

adapted by Brad Lawrence
directed by David Marcotte and Nathan Robbel
thru November 21st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

IT 3_5x2 - Front - Portrait The Right Brain Project enjoyed success with Brad Lawrence’s play Chalk in 2007, a gumshoe noir retelling of the Oedipus myth. Their collaboration seems a constructive fit with this world premiere of The Modern Prometheus, Lawrence’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein set in the middle of modern debates between science and religion. It is definitely a more thoughtful piece than most Frankenstein versions—one that RBP gears toward maximum entertainment–but it falls short of being the intellectual challenge touted by its press.

There’s no denying the thrill and accessibility of this production. Right Brain Project has not sacrificed the guilty pleasures of the Frankenstein myth, but tried to integrate them with the play’s more serious content. But before getting into special effects, first and foremost, the production is well grounded in even casting and strong performances. Directed by David Marcotte and Nathan Robbel, the progressive pacing and cast invigorate what could have been a well-worn story stuffed with stock roles.

Dennis Newport, in particular, shows depth and range in his humanistic portrayal of Pastor Friedmann. Erin Elizabeth Orr conveys the full-bodied charm and intelligence of a Victorian heroine as Victor Frankenstein’s fiancé, Elizabeth. Tom McGrath makes a delightfully smooth and insouciant villain as the devious lab assistant, Henry. Colby Sellers’ Frankenstein Monster achieves that badly needed balance between terror and pathos to make his creature compelling; while Ned Record (Schultz) and Katherine Jordan (Selma) make a vivid and memorable father-daughter pair.

prometheusStrange that the performance that leaves something of a vacuum is the man of the hour himself, Victor Frankenstein (Nathan Robbel). Brad Lawrence’s Frankenstein is more driven young scientist than mad doctor. Still, Robbel’s interpretation seems a little too relaxed to render a man capable of groundbreaking experiments, let alone playing God.

Likewise, Lawrence’s writing overplays the challenge Frankenstein’s discoveries present to Christian faith, even in this 19th century period. The text shows very little recognition that faith itself is a slippery thing.

In the play, little Selma dies, to be brought back to life dramatically by Victor. Victor Frankenstein’s discoveries have temporarily subverted the natural order. Yet, the scene wherein Pastor Friedmann presents Selma’s testimony that she saw nothing in death, neither heaven nor hell, simply does not hold water. Any tent revivalist preacher could make hash of that “evidence” of God’s non-existence in two minutes.

If fundamentalist Christians in our era build Creationist museums, which squeeze billion of years of geological time into 6000 years of creation, then they can discount any evidence that does not fit the narrative of the faithful. Sadly, Lawrence’s text overshoots this nuance to make the struggle between science and faith a direct and full-throttle wrestling match.

Lawrence shows greater sophistication placing Frankenstein’s discoveries in the context of the Franco-Prussian War. What chaos would erupt if news broke out that brought people all over Europe to Ingolstadt, clamoring for their war dead to be brought back to life? Further recognition that, most likely, the rich would be harvesting the poor to resuscitate their dead would lend even greater horror to Frankenstein’s macabre achievement. Lawrence’s work also shows tremendous promise in the acknowledgement–from the mouth of the pastor, no less–that war is a “terrible invention.” It convincingly depicts the ambiguous, compromised relationship that Frankenstein has with his own creation. A little more consideration of whether any invention actually improves humanity’s lot and this play could be all that it intellectually aspires to be.

Dramatically, the end of the second act requires clean up. One moment especially strains all credulity: the pastor hands over Selma’s prostrate body to the Creature he had denounced as a “vessel of heresy” two minutes before. It’s moments like these that I deeply appreciate the actors’ ability to go full-bore, but they must be corrected all the same.

As is, The Modern Prometheus still provides good, solid entertainment. Special nods go to Anthony Ingram (set design), Mark Hurni (light design), Sarah Elizabeth Miller (costume/makeup/props design), Amy Sokol (music director), and Christopher M. Walsh (fight choreographer) for providing the well balanced and vital special effects needed to vivify a timeless tale.

Rating: «««